On Sunday the Venezuelan government will hold a presidential election that has been broadly condemned internationally as being unfair and in which the major opposition political parties and leaders have been banned from participating As a result, despite popularity ratings below 25%, the current president, Nicolas Maduro, seems set to win re-election, thanks to an opaque, rigged electoral system and—if that weren’t enough—government handouts of food and medicine in exchange for support at the ballot box
What will come after the elections, though, is unclear. The international community—including the 14-country Lima Group, the European Union, the United Nations and the United States—has already declared that it will not consider the elections free and fair, and the major opposition coalition the Mesa Unidad Democrática (or the unfortunately “acronym-ed” MUD) is calling for voters to boycott the process.
Growing international sanctions, domestic protests—brutally repressed by the government’s armed forces and private militias—and a humanitarian crisis (over 80% of the country lives in poverty, an estimated 13% of the population is undernourished and more than 1.6 million Venezuelans have fled the country) have all failed to force a political or economic course change for the 19-year-old regime founded by Hugo Chávez. In 1992, then-Lieutenant Colonel Chávez staged a coup attempt against the elected government of then President Carlos Andres Pérez. By 1998, Chávez was out of prison for his attempted putsch and ran as an outsider candidate promising to bring a revolution to Venezuela and redistribute the country’s oil wealth.
Now, though, with the economy in tatters and the state and armed forces politicized and corrupt, democracy, when it does return to Venezuela, will likely occur in phases rather than all at once, as many in the opposition hope. Indeed, the institutional black hole and economic disaster of Venezuela—which faces inflation of 13,000% this year—is unprecedented in the hemisphere, bearing a closer resemblance to the collapsed states in Africa more than the military-authoritarian governments that dominated the region in the 1970s. Few doubt that the May 20th elections are a foregone conclusion, with Maduro winning and the same disastrous economic policies of profligate spending, a complicated, overvalued exchange rate, and massive shortages of food and medicine remaining in place. Yet the international community and local democratic activists can play a role in rebuilding Venezuela’s democracy after the election—little by little, and over time.
Here are four steps they can take to begin to reassert international and regional human rights and democracy norms, provide relief to long-suffering Venezuelan citizens and provide a stable solution for the deeply divided country to avoid a risky and dangerous potential coup and broader social upheaval.
- Push for meaningful dialogue: For years, a “Group of Friends” consisting of Mexico, Chile and Paraguay—among others—has overseen a dialogue between the Maduro government and representatives of the political opposition. The talks, held in the Dominican Republic, have stalled over the government’s refusal to release political prisoners, restore credible election authorities and respect the constitution. The mediation effort’s failure was no surprise. Historically, negotiations of this sort have only been successful when there is an established timetable for meeting defined goals and when they are based on the requirement that responsible parties comply with international human rights norms and are backed by a credible threat of sanctions for non-compliance. None of those conditions were present in the most recent effort, which broke down in February. That doesn’t mean the talks should be abandoned. Ultimately, the only way out of the downward spiral in Venezuela is negotiation and mediation—just under realistic conditions in which past talks have succeeded.
- Build community: Desperation, political polarization and the absence of rule of law and security have torn Venezuela’s social fabric apart. The government has exploited these conditions, distributing baskets of food to voters in return for promises of electoral support, and threatening state employees that they will lose their jobs if they support the opposition. Regional neighbors and international groups need to collectively insist that the government permit outside humanitarian assistance that will work with local NGOs to provide that support—food, medical supplies, even basic personal hygiene products such as toilet paper—in a non-partisan, non-ideological fashion.
- Prepare for change (and produce a carrot): Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann and the International Monetary Fund have each developed their own analyses of what will be necessary to rebuild Venezuela in terms of returning oil production to pre-Chávez levels, addressing infrastructural deficits, restoring social services, ending hyperinflation, and digging the government out of its deep fiscal hole. But most of these have been macro assessments based on the presumption that rebuilding will start from a clean slate after the current government collapses. The IMF analysis determined that Venezuela would require $30 billion per year for up to 10 years. Venezuela’s neighbors and multilateral organizations need to realize that change will be a more gradual process and explore projects and commitments that not only address that inevitability of political change but also provide incentives for members of the Maduro government to consider nudging the government and society away from its present course. Neighboring countries need to start imagining other smaller steps and projects aimed at restoring food productivity, upgrading infrastructure and rebuilding hospitals, all to incentivize governmental change, and then be ready to pony-up the money if and when there is agreement on providing assistance inside Venezuela free of government interference.
- Address Venezuela’s Migrant Crisis: An estimated 5,000 Venezuelans leave the country every day, and the migrant flow is expected get much worse. There are more Venezuelan citizens fleeing their country than Rohingya forced out of Myanmar. Many of Venezuela’s neighbors have been absorbing these refugees, and Colombia recently received $2.5 million in food and medical aid from the U.S. government to help with this effort. But there are already some signs of backlash in Chile, Brazil and parts of Colombia due to the strain that these refugees are causing on local services and labor markets. The region needs a more coherent plan to help organize the flow of migrants, distribute Venezuelan refugees more equitably to other countries so that Venezuela’s immediate neighbors—Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago—don’t bear the brunt of the exodus, and also provide both immediate and long-term assistance in relocation, health care, food aid, housing, and integration.
Each of these steps requires regional coordination and funding, along with a strong dose of reality about the likely paths of change and timing—something that has been sorely lacking for almost a decade. But it also means that the international community, not just Venezuela’s neighbors, should maintain pressure on the government after the May 20th electoral farce. In fact, the real moment for international cooperation and action starts on May 21st, after the Maduro government has thumbed its nose at the world and proceeded with its internationally condemned elections.